Suicide by ship

A wake spewing from her propeller, the steamer Katahdin sails from a port during winter. The sidewheeler was bound for Maine when a passenger went overboard on May 19, 1865. (Bangor Public Library)

Six weeks after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, did the Civil War claim yet another victim aboard a Maine-bound steamer?

Launched in 1863, the side-wheel steamship Katahdin stopped at various Maine ports while plying a regular round-trip route between Bangor and Boston. Late day on Friday, May 19, 1865, crewmen slipped the Katahdin’s hawsers at a Bean Town dock, and Capt. J.P. Johnson carefully maneuvered his single-stack steamer across Boston Harbor.

Steering through “a considerable sea,” Johnson anticipated a routine Gulf of Maine crossing as his officers circulated among the passengers to collect fares. The late spring daylight faded; while some passengers gathered at the rails to watch the rolling waves and crying sea birds, others took to their cabins.

“Bang!” a pistol shot cracked “at the extreme after part of the boat on the main deck” some 90 minutes out of Boston.

“Man overboard!” someone shouted.

Ordering the Katahdin immediately stopped, Johnson sent a trusted crew into the lifeboat, lowered until the sea solidified beneath its keel and the sailors could bite with their oars. Passengers pointed frantically to where a body bobbed amidst the waves; pulling hard, the sailors rescued the man and “brought [him] on board in an exhausted condition” only “fifteen minutes after the alarm.”

With the cold and soaked victim supine, “the natural remedies for restoring drowning persons were applied with success, but the man remained unconscious, breathing heavily,” sailors noticed.

“This makes no sense,” Johnson probably thought as he watched the victim’s chest heave. Then a passenger emerged from the crowd and reported seeing the man stand on the ship’s rail before the pistol shot, which Johnson had not heard.

Afterwards the man fell into the sea, the passenger explained.

Now closely examining the victim, “Johnson soon discovered a small wound from a pistol on his forehead over the right temple,” probably above the hair line. Cold sea water had washed away the blood, hence leaving no obvious evidence.

The wound “was probed by Dr. [likely David P.] Flanders, of Belfast, who happened to be on board.” He measured the wound as “5½ inches in depth.”

As “the officers of the boat” gave “their kind attentions to the man after he was brought on board,” Johnson ordered the Katahdin to return to Boston. After the ship docked, the victim “was conveyed to the Soldier’s Rest Hospital, where he remained in an unconscious condition until Saturday afternoon at 5 o’clock, when he died.

“His remains are properly cared for by the city authorities, and will be delivered to any of his friends.”

What led authorities to suspect the victim was a soldier? He never regained consciousness, and “nothing was found on his person to identify him.” A pocket search found “no money or valuables,” and “his age” was “apparently about 22 years,” a young man “of light complexion” who sported a “slight moustache.”

The young man “had on checked pants.” Aboard the Katahdin, crewmen had discovered “the cape” of “a soldier’s overcoat … near the place where he went overboard.”

Then came a telegram for Captain Johnson from F. Chamberlain, a shipping agent.
Dated earlier on May 20, the “despatch” revealed that Chamberlain had received “word of Andrew Gillis that he should shoot himself off the stern of your steamer last night. Telegraph me at once.”

Had someone, perhaps a friend, found a suicide note left by Gillis in a rented room? If so, Gillis had planned his death well. Although “some … passengers were suspicious that the man was shot by another person,” the investigation by “the officers of the boat” convinced them “that it is a clear case of suicide.”

If the victim truly was named Andrew Gillis, was he truly a soldier, a Union boy from the belief that he wore a great coat?

What trauma had caused the right-handed Gillis to ensure his ultimate success at suicide? If the bullet did not get him, the sea would, he likely figured in that moment when he clambered onto the Katahdin’s rail.

Had the war, perhaps PTSD, claimed yet another young man’s life?

Source: Suicide Of An Unknown Man, Daily Whig & Courier, Monday, May 22, 1865

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

 

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.